Wednesday, 20 December 2006

A Shameless Boor

Decency, modesty, thoughtfulness, let alone conscientiousness or nobility — these are not qualities one might typically expect from a journalist. And honesty, when it occurs, may be of an accidental kind, a shadow cast by a boast:
We have jettisoned absolutely every notion of ‘shame’, we have taken decorum and modesty and discretion and shoved them up our forebears’, er, noses. I am all for it, the nudity and new boisterousness; most of those past qualities were about knowing ones place and staying within it. [1]
So writes Zoe Williams. The trouble is, such words cannot persuade me; for the thought of Ms Williams and her kind knowing their places and staying within them is to me a happy one. I am all for it.
[1] Zoe Williams, “Mouthfuls of Snobbery”, The Guardian, 20th December 2006.

Great Apes

Someone who seems to know hardly the first thing about genetics sees fit to give us a lecture thereon:
The problem is that there is no such thing as ‘races’ . . . There are human beings with different appearances and cultures but we are all 100% the same in genetic make-up and only 1% removed from the apes of the world. [1]
It is certainly not true that all humans are genetically identical. As for the genetic differences between humans and their closest living ape-relatives, the chimpanzees, there have been “approximately thirty-five million single-nucleotide changes, five million insertion/deletion events, and various chromosomal rearrangements” since their divergence from a common ancestor. [2] Whilst most of the differences lie in so-called junk DNA, about three million do not, and therefore one may say that, although humans and chimpanzees share ninety-six percent of their genomes, humans are about three-million-times different from chimpanzees in crucial areas thereof. Phenotypically, the differences are obvious: chimpanzees are not capable of writing apish comments in the newspapers.
[1] Becka, commenting on Joseph Harker, “The problem is that he just doesn’t understand race”, The Guardian, 30th December 2006.
[2] The Chimpanzee Sequencing and Analysis Consortium, “Initial sequence of the chimpanzee genome and comparison with the human genome”, Nature, Vol. 437:7055, pp. 69-87. 1st September 2005.

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

A Rebuke

“There is ground for declaring that modern man has become a moral idiot. So few are those who care to examine their lives, or to accept the rebuke which comes of admitting that our present state may be a fallen state, that one questions whether people now understand what is meant by the superiority of an ideal. One might expect abstract reasoning to be lost upon them; but what is he to think when attestations of the most concrete kind are set before them, and they are still powerless to mark a difference or to draw a lesson?”

Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp.1-2.

Monday, 18 December 2006

Not to be Taken Personally

TIME’s Person of the Year for 2006 is you.” [1] How flattering! Or do they mean some other person?

[1] Lev Grossman, “Person of the Year: You”, TIME, 13th December 2006.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

Fewtril #153

Much of the trouble with liberty comes from the difficulty that people have in appreciating that the right to act like a rotter does not mean one ought to act like one.

Fewtril #152

Many have devised for themselves an additional criterion of knowledge: that it may not offend their sensibilities or disturb their repose.

The Egalitarian Fancy

It seems incredible to suggest that there are people who think it wrong for parents to want what is best for their children, that is, wrong to provide them with the love, support and opportunities that will happen to give them advantages over others less fortunate than they; but since equality is the madness of the age, we should have no trouble in believing our eyes when the symptoms are so markedly ugly.
…..One hated source of difference and advantage is private education. Whilst some can afford it, and some cannot, it can only be an object of the egalitarian’s wrath. Zoe Williams of The Guardian, for instance, thinks it reprehensible that parents should wish to fulfil their duty of care to their children in wanting the best education for them, being that it allows them to “[buy their] way out of equality”. [1] But why on earth would one want to flush oneself and one’s ilk down the drain of equality in the first place?
…..Never mind for the moment that, to come close to the egalitarian fancy, every man, woman, and child must come under the control of one power, so that nothing be left to varied chance, talent, diligence, responsibility, or even love – an injustice of opportunity perpetrated against every man, woman, and child. Never mind for the moment that, in practice, the egalitarian fancy produces the most startling inequalities in power between those who must maintain the suppression of inequalities and those who must be made subject to it, which, moreover, will require for its operation a suffusion of mendacity throughout society. Think for the moment only of what madness it is to maintain that equality is in every respect better than inequality, whereby, it is better that there be three ignorant men than one ignorant and two knowledgeable; or three poor men than one rich and two poor. What can explain this? Is it a genuine fear that advantage will lead to domination? But then, one would have to do away with every advantage, every marked skill or talent, every source of culture – and banish chance itself! Besides, as already mentioned, the drive towards this equality – this destruction – makes domination necessary, most likely in a ruthless and mendacious form. Perhaps, after all, it is the working-through of a political will to power, parasitical on resentment, which sees that a mass of, say, equally ignorant men is easier to dominate than a group of varied men.

[1] Zoe Williams, “A mixed bag of morals”, The Guardian, 13th December 2006.

Tuesday, 12 December 2006

A Satirical Delight

“I always get a satirical delight in seeing a philosopher suffering from a tooth-ache”. [1]
[1] Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living (London and Toronto: William Heinemann, 1938), p.29.
[2] William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, Leonato in Act V, Scene 1.

Fewtril #151

Falsity easily grows into absurdity; for, through a surfeit of pride, we make ever greater mistakes in order that we remain consistent with our first.

Fewtril #150

A great many certificates of education bear testimony to our society’s wish to have the ignorant feel better about themselves.

Fewtril #149

Coming to accept the adverse consequences of his most strongly professed ideas is a difficult task for many an intellectual, not least when he never really believed in those ideas in the first place.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Ataraxia, or: On Attaining a State of Nevermind

Pyrrho of Elis professed to believe that nothing could be known, and accordingly the only proper attitude to take towards life was that of ataraxia, a state of nevermind free from the peturbance of worry or preoccupation, to be attained through a suspension of judgement. (If any Pyrrhonist ever attained ataraxia, we must presume he suspended judgement on whether or not it was the proper attitude to take towards life.) If the old story is to be believed, poor old Pyrrho fell to his death from a cliff when showing off his lack of faith in his senses. I do not think I am too mean-spirited in harbouring the suspicion that even he would have been a little put out by this turn of events.
…..The Epicureans and the Stoics had different – and safer – ideas on how to attain ataraxia: for the Epicureans, it was to be attained through fear-allaying knowledge, temperance, friendship, and living retired; for the Stoics, it was to be reached through an heroic self-control to overcome passion and pain.
.....Whatever else one makes of these doctrines, one must concede that they require discipline, than which fewer things are more certain to scare away the modern mind.
…..To that mind fitted with all its conveniences and comforts, the thought of a disciplined life is a dreadful one. The desire to be free from care and worry is nevertheless still strong. With that mind, therefore, there is no sublime discipline so as to transcend the hardships of life, but rather a submission to whatever makes life easy and carefree. One suspects it would rather live in a joyless order than be inconvenienced or unsafe.
…..The desire to be free from care is an understandable one, but taken to extremes, it stifles life, and may bring about other consequences besides, as Schopenhauer noted:
[J]ust as our body would inevitably burst if the pressure of the atmosphere were removed from it, so if the pressure of want, hardship, disappointment, and the frustration of effort were removed from the lives of men, their arrogance would rise, though not to bursting-point, yet to manifestations of the most unbridled folly and even madness. At all times, everyone indeed needs a certain amount of care, anxiety, pain, or trouble, just as a ship requires ballast in order to proceed on a straight and steady course. [1]
If we were, after all, to view ataraxia as the greatest good, we might envy cabbages, although the perturbance caused by such envy would further bear witness to how far we fall short of such vegetables.

[1] Arthur Schopenhauer, “Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Suffering of the World”, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol.2, tr. E.J.F. Payne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), pp.292-3, §152.

Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Fewtril #148

We ought to consider that some ideals become outmoded, not because society has progressed beyond them, but because so few men are able to live up to them.

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Fewtril #147

Perhaps the artificial intelligences of the future will turn the tables on humanity and institute an inversion of the Turing Test: a computer-judge converses in a computer-language with a human and another computer, wherewith, if the judge cannot distinguish between the two, the human passes the test. One can only hope that, having failed the test, the human will at least be able to judge for himself whether or not the computers have failed to grasp the irony.

Fewtril #146

Without care or discrimination, a man may find himself competing to be the greatest in all manner of things — even in stupidity.